Freedom Fighter or Terrorist? The US Can't Decide about Bangladeshi Immigrant Sachin Karmakar

Welcome to America, freedom fighter. Now go stuff yourself.

In the spring of 1971, Sachin Karmakar was a 19-year-old college student who found himself swept up in the short and bloody war that marked the birth of the nation of Bangladesh.

Before it could secede from Pakistan, the fledgling nation was subject to a brutal crackdown by the Pakistani army, resulting in the death of 3 million Bangladeshis. The country's Hindu minority was especially vulnerable to attack. Ten million fled to India. Karmakar's father, a Hindu, was among the slain.

Karmakar remembers traveling by foot to India on a highway strewn with beheaded and mutilated corpses.

Mohammed Rasul helped out a cause the U.S. supported. And now, that’s the problem.
Willie Davis
Mohammed Rasul helped out a cause the U.S. supported. And now, that’s the problem.
Sachin Karmakar’s application for asylum was granted in only 13 days. But now the government considers him a terrorist.
Willie Davis
Sachin Karmakar’s application for asylum was granted in only 13 days. But now the government considers him a terrorist.

Like many other students, he had joined the Mukti Bahini, a pro-independence group whose name translates to "freedom fighters." By the end of the year, India had sent thousands of troops to help, and the People's Republic of Bangladesh was born.

In the following decade, Karmakar became a captain in the Bangladeshi national army and a wealthy importer of Australian wheat. He also became well-known in the country as a leading advocate for the nation's religious minorities.

In 2001, when radical Islamists came to power in Bangladesh, Karmakar again found himself in danger. Vigilante groups targeted Hindus and Buddhists for rape and murder. Karmakar himself was threatened with death by the local police; his mansion and office were ransacked; and the president of the country eventually declared him to be the equivalent of an enemy of the state. Karmakar was told by the national police chief that if he didn't leave Bangladesh, he'd be jailed. He knew that jail meant torture, even death.

Within a week after receiving that warning, Karmakar had moved to Jackson Heights, Queens, leaving behind a wife and daughter. "I'd sooner jump off the Empire State Building than live in another Muslim country," he says.

Karmakar's persecution by radical Islamists and his long record of promoting the rights of religious minorities were both so well-documented that his request for political asylum in the United States was approved just 13 days after he applied for it. His case officer, he says, told him it was the fastest approval she'd ever granted.

Which helps explain why Karmakar was so shocked when he received a letter in February that informed him that the government intended to deny him a "green card," the permit necessary for him to live and work permanently in the U.S. and to apply for citizenship.

The reason? Because he had been a member of Mukti Bahini, an "undesignated terrorist organization," said the letter from an immigration official in Texas.

The irony was not lost on Karmakar.

The government intended to deny him a green card for having been a freedom fighter, which was part of the reason he was welcomed into this country in the first place.

A day after Karmakar received his notice, a similar letter arrived at the Bronx home of an Afghani restaurant owner named Mohammed Rasul.

When the Russians invaded Afghanistan in 1979, Rasul was working in his father's clothing shop in Kandahar and getting ready to finish high school. After the invasion, all he remembers is fighting. Homegrown groups of Muslim freedom fighters, called "mujahideen," formed to fight the Russians, whom they saw as illegitimate occupiers. The mujahideen enjoyed widespread support in Afghanistan—and significant financial and military backing from the United States. For years, Rasul recalls, not a day passed that a violent skirmish didn't break out on the street.

Rasul says people had no choice: If you didn't join the Soviet army, you could be killed. But if you joined, the mujahideen might kill you. "We were always afraid," says Rasul, now 50. "Anyone who could get out, did." Rasul says he was never a fighter, but when the mujahideen emerged from their hideouts in the hills and came to town, his father would give them clothes, money, and food.

In 1985, Rasul came to the U.S., in part with the help of an American policy that aided the immigration of people who had been part of U.S.-backed anti-communist struggles. Two years later, Rasul took over Colony Fried Chicken, a storefront in the South Bronx, from another Afghani.

He applied for asylum, but didn't get it until 1998, after the Taliban had come to power in Afghanistan. An immigration officer determined that because Rasul had supported the mujahideen, his life would be in danger in a Taliban-run state. After the 9/11 attacks, the U.S. overthrew the Taliban regime and installed a former mujahideen fighter, Hamid Karzai, to lead the country's transitional government.

Rasul opened his letter when he got back home after working the 12-hour shift he does six days a week. Like Karmakar, he learned that he was being denied a green card. The reason? His support of the mujahideen, which immigration officers deemed "terrorist activity."

Rasul, struggling with English, tries to explain the letter's twisted logic. Before, he had been rewarded for helping the mujahideen. "Now, mujahideen is terrorist?" he asks. "Is Mr. Karzai terrorist?"

Karmakar and Rasul weren't alone. In February, a similar case had received national attention: The Washington Post profiled an Iraqi Kurd who had worked as a translator for the U.S. army, was granted a special visa to enter the U.S., but was then denied a green card.

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